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Life After Miami Vice

After years of chasing crooks on TV, Don Johnson finds time for the good life.
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 3)

Johnson's real home remains his ranch outside of Aspen in a place called Woody Creek. This is the same Woody Creek made famous by gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, with whom Johnson is close friends. (He jokes that he remains out of Thompson's mortar range.) "I've been there for 20 years or so and it's home," Johnson says fondly of his 20-acre ranch. "It's a working ranch. I have cattle and I have a bunch of horses and stuff. But it's really a working ranch for 12-year-olds. I built it for myself. In other words, it has everything on there that you would need to keep a 12-year-old interested and happy. Dirt bikes and snowmobiles and trampolines and Harley Davidsons. But the toys aren't really the thing. The thing that I really love most about there is the lifestyle. It's actually living. It's America. And I'm a good-old red-blooded American boy. And that'll never go away."

Donnie Wayne Johnson came into this world on December 15, 1949, in Flat Creek, Missouri. His mother was a beautician and his father an aircraft mechanic. He grew up with one sister and two younger brothers. His parents divorced when he was almost a teenager; so he spent most of his teen years between Flat Creek, where his father lived, and Wichita, Kansas, where his mother lived. He's still very close with his father, sister and brothers. "Oh yeah, we're very close," he says happily. "We're father and son, and business partners. We've got some things down in Missouri. I own the house where I was born. My sister is a songwriter and she lives in California. My two younger brothers have nothing to do with show business. They're just good old boys. One of them is a tool and die maker and the other a heavy equipment operator. That's the heartland of America there."

Johnson had a few run-ins with the law (joyriding in cars among other things) during his adolescence, before he graduated from Wichita South High School in 1967. He received a scholarship in drama to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, but dropped out after a couple of semesters to move to the West Coast to pursue an acting career. In 1975, Johnson starred in the sci-fi film A Boy and His Dog, a post- apocalyptic tale set in 2024 about a young man and his canine companion who rely on each another to survive. Johnson's character provides the dog with food and the dog finds his master female companionship in return. They communicate telepathically, the dog offering comic relief by way of his sardonic quips.

A Boy and His Dog was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s in campus film festivals. His 1973 film, The Harrad Experiment, about a college that tests coed housing, was another film—society favorite. It was also where he met Melanie Griffith, whose mother, Tippi Hedren, acted in the film. Johnson and Griffith were married for a few months in 1975 . Griffith was only 18 and he was 26. They remarried in 1989 and divorced again in 1995.

Despite early success, Johnson considered himself a country boy with little knowledge of the film or television business until his audition for "Miami Vice." He still considers himself something of a good old boy. "Growing up in Missouri, you learn real values about people," says Johnson. "You learn about what it takes to work hard and to respect one another. There's a real sense of community."

His family, particularly his children, still make up the group closest to him. Not only is he crazy about his youngest, Grace, Johnson is very close to his son, Jesse, 19, his child with actress Patti D'Arbanville, and Dakota, 12, his daughter with Melanie Griffith. "I just love kids," he says. "They are so much fun to be with."

Back at the party in Siena, Johnson and Kelley have been looking at their wristwatches for close to 20 minutes. The night is young by Italian standards: just after 11:30 p.m. But the Johnsons are ready to call it a night. "We have to go home and look after little Gracie," says Johnson, as he, Kelley and a couple of friends climb into a taxi.

After checking on their young daughter when they get home, Johnson is ready to share a bottle of 1997 Sassicaia, smoke a Cohiba Esplendido and strum a few chords on his classical guitar. "You know the thing that being in Italy has taught me?" he says, puffing away on his cigar. "You gotta live right now. Not until you make that extra hundred million or that big hit movie or win the Oscar or do this or to do that, although I hope to do all those things. But I'm going to do them at an Italian pace."

Six months after his Tuscan summer, Johnson feels even more convinced that it's important to "live for the moment" and "live well together." Like most of us, he's horrified with the events of September 11, but he hopes that something positive comes of them. "Everything after September 11 has to have an asterisk, before and after," he said in a phone conversation from his ranch in Colorado. He's not drinking at the moment nor smoking cigarettes, but a great cigar remains one of his continued pleasures. "All of that changed our lives … the world has changed forever. But this crisis has been an invitation to our spirit. We are all neighbors. And we must find good in all people."

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